In Alexi Zentner's debut novel, "Touch" (W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $24.95), Stephen, an Anglican pastor, returns to the once-thriving gold mining and logging boomtown of his youth to sit vigil during his mother's death. There, along with his stepfather, he confronts the legacy of his elders.
The novel invites us closest to the golden vein of epic when Stephen yields full voice to his forebears, and especially that of his grandfather Jeannot, whose reasons for leaving Sawgamet are more anguishing than his reasons to return.
To get there, we must cleave through Stephen's cumbersome parsing of familial relationships and too often tiresome taxonomy of the various attributes of snow. The novel flags and falters when trying to support the snowdrift weight of his self-analysis. When Stephen asks forgiveness for digressing from these stories, he should receive none.
Instead, he should offer more about his grandmother Martine, whose passion for Jeannot is so intense its heat embeds a glittering chain into her neck; and about a relentless winter when 30 feet of snow entraps them, driving them to unspeakable acts of survival and manifesting tormenting loss.
We would welcome more of the wry humor and frank affection Martine shares with her savvy entrepreneur brother Franklin. We are led to expect, but do not receive, enough sustained interactions with the other inhabitants of the woods, such as a caribou that sheds flakes of gold before dazzled lovers, or the witchy Qallupilluit capable of dragging a child down into the cold water of the Sawgamet River.
Stephen says, "I knew of Sawgamet both as a place and an idea, and I knew that my grandfather had returned with some sense of the magic that the woods still contained and all of the possibilities that entailed."
Jeannot "did not think of the woods in terms of good and evil. He saw the magic as a reality, not as a benevolence or a punishment, and he realized that the only thing he could count on was himself."
The book reveals a woodland world that asks to be remembered for what it was before men and their axes reduced it and all it contained -- real and surreal -- to shadow. It wants us to believe in a time when we could braid magic with the expected into something, if not stronger, certainly more breathtaking. Here the wilderness, of the woods as well as the soul, is a place with which to be reckoned, and the strongest of men and women can fashion from it a life of mythological proportion and beauty.
Susan Thurston is a St. Paul writer. Her most recent work is included in the anthology "Low Down and Coming On" from Red Dragonfly Press.